January 2014



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Zebra Staff Note:
The Teacher Feature highlights the positive impact or innovative work of a South Dakota teacher each month. If you have a suggestion for a Teacher Feature, contact Ruth Raveling at (605) 773-2593 or Ruth.Raveling@state.sd.us.

In December, Erin Marsh received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She is one of two South Dakota recipients. (The other, Ann Anderson of Belle Fourche, will be featured in the February issue of the Online Zebra.) Marsh teaches a combined classroom of 2nd and 3rd graders and is one of two math coaches at the Pierre Indian Learning Center (PILC).

Marsh was attending Penn State when she came to the PILC to student teach. At first, she thought she might leave the Midwest after that first school year, but then she got to know the students. When the school offered her a full-time job after completing her student teaching, she couldn’t turn it down. She’s been at the PILC for eight and a half years now.

The PILC is a private boarding school for children in 1st through 8th grades. Students come from 15 tribes and three states (South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska). The school has a high population of special education students with social, emotional, and learning disabilities. There is a high turnover rate among students, but Marsh says for those that make it through all eight grades, “They’ll tell you, the PILC is one of the best things that’s ever happened to them.”

“Because the students live at the school,” Marsh says, “I feel like I have a family here, in addition to the one I have at home. Kids will tell me, ‘You’re just like my mom.’”

That home-like setting also means classroom lessons go beyond the traditional content areas to incorporate things like social skills and manners.

Marsh explains that building trust is her first step in teaching: “Once that’s built, then the learning starts. Then students will work to their potential for you.”

When asked how she gets her students excited about math, she says that the key is to make it relatable. She might do this by putting her students’ names into story problems or writing problems that incorporate their interests, like basketball and Matchbox cars. Her approach seems to be working: “I’ll give them a challenge problem and they’ll say, ‘Yes!’ I don’t ever want my students to get the message from me that they can’t do something.”

“The change to Common Core is a good shift. We’re teaching them to be problem solvers, deeper thinkers. It’s not me showing them, it’s them figuring it out on their own,” Marsh says. “We’re changing our methods and teaching the ‘why’.”

What excites Marsh most about this award is the opportunity to network with other educators. She will get to meet winners from across the country at an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., and she will receive some professional development. She’ll take that information, put it to work in her classroom and school, then she will be on to her next opportunity for growth.

Marsh says when she was in college, she used to get frustrated with how much she and her fellow students had to write about reflecting on their teaching practices: “I’d think, ‘Why do we have to do all this reflecting?’ But now I get it. Now, I’m constantly reflective. That’s what makes you better.”